Centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme

Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the first day of what the British called the Battle of Albert, which was the first phase of the Battle of the Somme.

Whereas most of the ceremonies held today will concentrate on what is often thought to have been the British Army’s worst day, the role played by the French Army should not be forgotten. The offensive that started on 1st July 1916 was a combined offensive by units of the British Third and Fourth Armies and the French Sixth Army, and took place on a front that ran from Foucaucourt on the south bank of the Somme to Gommecourt, 2 miles beyond Serre on the north bank.

In the sector between Foucaucort and the Albert–Bapaume road (where the French and southernmost divisions of the British Fourth Army attacked), the attack was a success, and the Germans were forced to retreat. It was very different story in the sector between the Albert–Bapaume road and Gommecourt where the bulk of the British Fourth Army mounted its attack. (The British Third Army’s role was to mount diversionary attacks north of Gommecourt.) The British attacks were met with fierce resistance and few units even reached the German front line. Whereas the French only suffered 1,590 casualties, the British losses were in excess of 57,000, of whom 19,240 were killed.

The reason why these terrible losses had such an impact on the British national psyche is not difficult to understand. A large number of the units that went over the top on the first day of the battle were Kitchener battalions. In other words they were units raised during the initial period of patriotic fervour that occurred in the early days and months of the war, and a large number of them were so-called ‘Pals’ battalions. These were often raised from what were quite small geographic areas (i.e. a town or district in a city) where most of the members of the battalion were know to each other. Other ‘Pals’ battalions were recruited from people who shared a common interest or profession (e.g. sportsmen, stockbrokers). When a ‘Pals battalion’ suffered casualties, the impact on a local area was immense, and for many towns and districts it was a disaster. For example, of the ‘Accrington Pals’ who took part in the attack, 235 were killed and 350 wounded within the space of twenty minutes.

The concept of the ‘Pals’ battalions was never repeated, and it is not difficult to see why.


The centenary of the Battle of Jutland

Today marks the centenary of the first day of what was arguably the largest naval battle ever to have taken place.

The Battle of Jutland (or in German, Skagerrakschlacht [the Battle of the Skagerrak]) may or may not have been a victory for one side or the other, but the cost was tremendous. In the space of twenty four hours the British lost 6,094 killed and 674 wounded and the Germans 2,551 killed and 507 wounded. The losses in ships was also heavy.

British losses (totaling 113,300 tons):

  • Battlecruisers: Indefatigable, Queen Mary, and Invincible
  • Armoured cruisers: Black Prince, Warrior, and Defence
  • Destroyer flotilla leaders: Tipperary
  • Destroyers: Shark, Sparrowhawk, Turbulent, Ardent, Fortune, Nomad, and Nestor

German losses (totaling 62,300 tons):

  • Battlecruiser: Lützow
  • Pre-Dreadnought: Pommern
  • Light cruisers: Frauenlob, Elbing, Rostock, and Wiesbaden
  • Destroyers: V48, S35, V27, V4, and V29

The Battle of Jutland was not a repeat of the Battle of Trafalgar, although a lot of British people expected the Royal Navy to win just such a decisive victory. It did, however, prevent the German High Seas Fleet from seizing control of the North Sea – even for a day – and it failed to break the stranglehold of the blockade that the Royal Navy maintained from the beginning of the war. In the end it was the latter which helped to win the war for the Allies.

To mark this day, there have been quite a few re-fights of the battle, one of the largest of which took place at the US Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. They used the rules and equipment (but not the models) that the US Navy used to re-fight the battle during the 1930s.

The following photographs of this re-fight are all copyright US Naval War College.